by Giuseppe Zollo
An literal journey into complexity began on December 26, 1541. On that day Francisco de Orellana left Gonzalo Pizarro’s expedition stuck in the Peruvian forest and with sixty men descended the Coca River in search of food. He won’t ever come back. Following the course of Coca and Napo rivers, Orellana reached an immense expanse of water. It was the Amazon River, which the expedition will follow for eight months up to the river’s mouth on improvised boats.
The detailed account that the Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal makes of the adventurous journey is a long series of events that repeat themselves over and over as the expedition proceeds: mysterious sounds emerging from the darkness of the forest such as the drums of the “Indians”, excruciating hunger, meetings with the indigenous inhabitants, skirmishes to get food, stops to rest, threatening villages that appear all of a sudden. And all the wonderful details, more dreamed of than really seen: the gold, the Amazons, the coveted riches. Everywhere, the immense and inexorable river that drags everything forward.
There is no attempt in de Carvajal account to make sense of that new and wonderful world. The report is a sequence of events that unfold along the endless water stream. I don’t find a better metaphor than this trip to describe the experience of being lost in complexity. Along the vein of water there is the man with his own ship is full of stories, ambitions, tools and prejudices; around him, an unknown universe that is experimented by points and lines. The experience of complexity takes place in a succession of encounters that are not connected by any relationship, an accumulation of details that are not framed in a general vision.
The experience is additive, without any attempt to compress information in a summary. There is no underlying structure, there is no reliable simplification. The outside world does not want to be framed, it has no shape, no stable meaning. So, those early explorers would not understand it.
Any experience without points of references or anchors generates contradiction. Orellana and his men experience from time to time and in a chaotic way the sense of mystery, uncertainty, disorientation, intoxication, euphoria, anguish, fear, courage, hope, paralysis, and frantic action.
There is no need to explore a tropical river as Orellana did to clash with complexity. Complexity undermines the sense of our everyday experience, it is just beyond the thin canvas of the habits that make our existence: a few small cuts in that canvas are sufficient to uncover the chaos behind the curtain.
The challenge for designers is to help us to add order and meaning to this chaotic flow, without suppressing the excitement and the surprise that come with it.
JOSÉ TORIBIO MEDINA, The Discovery of the Amazon, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1988 (ed. or. 1894).